Twin Cities photographer Ann Ginsburgh Hofkin focuses on "spiritual" landscapes in a show at Nina Bliese Gallery.
The trees are magnificent in the images of Twin Cities photographer Ann Ginsburgh Hofkin. Centering the pictures, their lacy canopies merge with the sky while their branches arch over dappled meadows and gnarled roots burrowing deep into the Earth's crust. At once monumental and delicate, Hofkin's trees have a primordial nobility that seems otherworldly.
Do they really grow here, on this troubled planet? How have they survived the blight of encroaching civilization with its fungus and rot, bombs, bulldozers, pavements and ever-growing human settlements? Where exactly is this Edenic paradise?
Nine of Hofkin's luminous, black-and-white photos silently pose such questions at Nina Bliese Gallery in downtown Minneapolis through Nov. 11. Serene and still, the photos have a crystalline clarity that seems almost too perfect. Printed in large formats, some are nearly 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Theirs is not that fake perfection of the Photoshopped image, though, nor a fantasy spun from a computer program.
Hofkin, 67, takes her pictures the old-fashioned way, loading film into a camera and hiking into the countryside, keeping her eyes tuned to that special play of light that makes a memorable image possible. Exotic locales aren't essential for photos that Hofkin says "could be done in my back yard." Still, she returns again and again to the same "very spiritual" landscapes -- and sometimes even the same trees -- in Israel, Hawaii and along the California coast.
"I love being out in nature and coming upon a scene that grabs me and my heart," Hofkin said recently. "It might relate to my feelings or my nostalgia. If I say I believe in God, it would be the kind of god who provides all this beauty, not necessarily the kind of god who creates evil."
Struggle in Eden
Hofkin's appreciation of landscape dates to childhood hikes with her father, a gregarious rabbi who instilled a reverence for the complexities of the natural world. Some of her images appear suffused with an almost supernatural light, as though the leaves are aflame while darkness closes in. Such effects introduce brooding psychological nuances, even a sense of threat, into her well-balanced formality.
"Even Eden wasn't always pleasant," she observed, always the rabbi's daughter. "If something beckons me, it's not just because it's pretty. It might speak of struggle and that necessity of having opposites. We don't know what light is without darkness, or what happiness is without struggle. The best wines are produced, they say, by vines that struggle."
Born in Holyoke, Mass., Hofkin studied philosophy, mathematics and music at Mount Holyoke College and earned a master's degree at Bryn Mawr in 1967. She and her husband, an investment manager, moved from the East Coast to the Twin Cities in 1974 and now have two grown sons. Besides shows in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, she has frequently exhibited her work at galleries and museums in Israel over the past decade.
Film vs. digital images
Even in a digital world, Hofkin still prefers film, specifically a particular infrared Konica product that has not been made for years. Before the company stopped making the film, she bought a huge supply that she stores in a freezer at her Long Lake studio. The strange spectral quality of her pictures derives from the fact that infrared responds to a wider range of light than the human eye can register.
"Black-and-white infrared film is sensitive to the whole visible spectrum, including the infrared that we can't see with the eye," she explained. "That's why they do surveillance with infrared, because it records heat. Things that have a lot of infrared energy will make your film darker in that area, which means that it is black in the negative. And since the print is the reverse of the negative, those areas will be light and ethereal on paper. So it's a way of proving the existence of things that the human eye can't see otherwise, and the bonus is that they look very special. They look magical, and that enhances the sense of mystery."
Hofkin is well aware that she is working in a landscape tradition shaped by such giants as Ansel Adams, with whom she took a 1980 workshop at Yosemite. She scrutinizes and edits her work rigorously to keep it fresh and honest.
"I sit with my work a long time and pretend I'm someone else seeing it for the first time. I ask myself, 'Do you give a damn about this?' I can't put up something that doesn't speak over a period of time; it can't be just a pretty picture. It has to have a lot of layers to it."